American Gods – A Quirky, Hard-Boiled Fantasy Thriller
Who is God? Is he the celestial being whom we believe to have created the universe? Or is he just a materialization of our beliefs? It’s an intriguing question for which mankind may not settle with any easy answers. But, belief seems to be the integral part of these two different questions. And, ‘belief’ is what seems to be the central theme of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, “American Gods”. Released on 2001, the novel attained critical acclaim and went on to win Nebula and Hugo awards (for fantasy). It’s hard to pinpoint the genre to which ‘American Gods’ belong. It’s a dark fantasy, a fairy tale, classic road novel, mystery, and crime/thriller. But, don’t worry. Although the novel jumps between genres it never makes things confusing and doesn’t even demand a basic knowledge of ancient mythologies.
The novel’s protagonist, ‘Shadow’, starts off like film-noir hero. When we first meet him Shadow is about to finish his three years in prison. During these years he has realized that he truly loves his wife, Laura. He now has a beautiful wife and a job waiting for him. Shadow gets released earlier than his release date. But, he couldn’t jump with joy because his wife is killed in a car accident. On the way to his wife’s funeral, Shadow meets an enigmatic one-eyed older gentleman in a pale suit. He offers Shadow a bodyguard job and won’t take no for answer.
Soon, Shadow learns that his best friend has also died in the accident with Laura. And, the reason for accident seems to be the affair Laura had with Shadow’s best friend. Shadow eventually takes up the old man’s offer. The old man asks to call him as ‘Mr. Wednesday’. It takes our hero sometime to learn that he is stumbled into a hidden world which exists within our real one. He drives around with Mr. Wednesday and meets other old guys, who all turn to be fading, down-on-their-luck Gods. These Gods and supernatural beings’ have come along with people’s belief that migrated to America. Since no one is worshiping them now, they are forced to live a miserable life.
Mr. Wednesday and Shadow are in a recruitment drive to gather the support of these old Gods as war is brewing with the new gods (including media and internet gods). Wednesday announces that this is their last chance to fight back or else they’re going to disappear for good. Shadow on his journey through the American back woods gradually learns that his job is not just concerned with serving. He seems to be the key piece in this war between Gods.
Neil Gaiman’s deft characterization, puns, in jokes, and word plays may arrest the readers. He fleshes out a character with ease (incorporating the decodable references to mythological creatures), and his command of language perfectly establishes the mood. Considering the tonal changes, without Gaiman’s concise passages, the proceedings would have been a mess. Although the plot outline reads like a fairy tale or an age old clash between good and bad, “American Gods” is more graphic, and disturbing than one could expect. The lines between good and evil dazzlingly blurs throughout the novel.
“American Gods” on the outset contains numerous forgotten gods and magic, but it offers a brief glimpse into the American history. Different timelines of American history are viewed through the thousands of explorers. By weaving the perspectives of those explorers, Gaiman asks us that: ‘If these people brought their way of life and language to ‘New World’, why not their Gods too? There’s also many thought-provoking questions arises on the subject of ever-changing culture. Although we have stopped worshiping thunder, ocean or forest Gods, we haven’t stopped our worships. The old gods are replaced with the living beings that come out of media, stock market and internet. In the future generation these new-found gods would also reach a threshold point.
The A to B kind of plot unfolding may serve as little flaw to the proceedings because the novel deserves more enigma and mystery. The ending may seem a little ‘Hollywood’ kind of thing. The neat answers and riddle-solving explanations aren’t necessary for this kind of dark fantasy. But, despite those small mistakes, “American Gods” remains as dark, mesmerizing saga with a fairly original idea. It flawlessly blends lamentable ancient myths with the spirited new cultural inventions.